I had a full schedule last Saturday. I wanted to be working on my back porch project, but life gets in the way of my wants. We had a leadership meeting at church at daybreak. I like getting an early start. Rick brought biscuits which went well with my third and fourth cups of coffee.
I followed that up with a CPR training class. Our certified trainer was Romaine, “like the lettuce” she says. She’s been pounding out chest rhythms for the public good since she lost her son a while back.
“If the opportunity presents itself, you should know what to do.” Her passion was strong, and her good-natured humor was contagious. She was great.
She travels with a bunch of dummies. Twenty-five or so naked, bald-headed dummies stuffed in tote bags. Adults, juveniles, and infants.
“When I go through Atlanta, I have been known to take a few out of the bag and set them up in the seats so I can use the HOV lane.”
She cracked me up.
For the next two hours my dummy and I practiced compressions. Thirty reps at a time to the beat of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive will wear you out. Two breaths, then thirty more compressions. She wore a T-shirt that said, “Quitting Is Not An Option.”
The greater item on my list for the day was to attend a funeral over in Valley, Alabama. There’s been way too many of these in the past couple of years, and this one was not going to be easy. I knew that. My friend, Buddy, lost his wife, which if you know me, you know this one hits close to home.
I do not know now any more about how grief works than I did 17 months ago when I started this journey. I have healed. I have grown. I live the majority of my days in a strength that defies reason. It’s not me. I am well aware that God is the one carrying my load.
But on Saturday, I had the feeling that grief was not done with me.
I wasn’t dreading going to Tonya’s funeral. I wanted to be there. I felt good about being there. The place was packed with friends and family who offered support with a lot more meaning that I could offer. Relationships that are deep and personal. Still, my requirement was to be there.
The preacher read the obituary with class and respect. Tonya’s granddaughter went up to the piano and played her grandmother’s favorite melody, ‘Ode to Joy’, though I think anything she played would have been Tonya’s favorite.
When Buddy got up to talk, I admired his strength. He had a handkerchief and used it liberally. Through the sniffles, he spoke tenderly of his gratitude and admiration for his wife of 45 years. He made us all believe that this sacred bond of marriage is worth the effort and then some.
I couldn’t help but wish that I had stood up and spoke similar words at Beth’s funeral. I could have. I could have told the world about the beauty of her spirit and the enduring nature of her commitment to the life we built together. Her passion for her children. Here unwavering trust in the Lord. Her ability to forgive me a thousand times and her lasting influence that to this day makes me a better man.
But I chose not to speak. And I think that this is where the grief began to swell inside me. Not that I feel guilty. Not that I necessarily regret my decision. It’s just that as Buddy spoke of his wife, I couldn’t help but think of mine.
Toward the end of the service, they played the Casting Crowns song, “I’ll Praise You in the Storm” while pictures of Tonya scrolled across the big screen up front. The story of a young girl who grew into a beautiful wife and mother. I made it through maybe ten slides before I lost it.
The sobs were deep. I buried my head to shield my dripping eyes. A hand gripped my shoulder from behind. There were several people there who understood my tears. Many, I would guess, who did not.
The hand that gripped my shoulder belonged to my friend Craig. Earlier, when we sang a few hymns, I could tell he was behind me because I know that tenor voice. He even reached up and stuffed a tissue in my hand as I tried to hide my tears.
Later that evening, I realized how strange that was because men don’t carry tissues. His wife was sitting a few rows back with some of the other ladies from our church who were in attendance. I realized only then that there must have been a tissue brigade passing one forward to me. I was a little embarrassed to be the focus of attention in a moment obviously not about me.
I can only hope that most of the people there missed my little episode.
Life is fragile. That truth has never spoken more loudly to me than right now. We are but a mist, here for a while and then gone. Young eyes grow weak. Smooth hands age and show signs of wear. Hair color changes. There are never enough days. The last time together passes too quickly.
But part of the wonderful and indescribable mystery of life is that our connection to those we have loved never fully fades away. And it’s not just the memories that live on. There is a sense of an unshakable presence; a knowledge of her ways and a familiarity of how she thinks that engages so much of my daily routine.
I am still defined more by who we were than who I am.
There are times when I have to force myself to state things more clearly. I still say “we” a lot, though there is now only me. I’ll give directions to “our” house when I know full-well that it is my house these days. I’ll offer advice on how “we” do things when, in fact, I am the only one doing it now.
I do not apologize for my tears. You wouldn’t ask me to. Every tear is a grief shared with so many others. Rick, who brought the biscuits on Saturday morning, lost both of his parents in the last year. Romaine, who gave us CPR training, lost her son before his life was full. Buddy lost his dear wife.
We will all experience loss at one time or another. It is inescapable. It’s how we live through that loss that gives us strength. To hide in our grief is selfish. To be ruined by our grief is tragic. To be ashamed of our grief is unnecessary. To be inconsolable in our grief is unbearable.
I have no idea of your story. If it includes grief of any kind, I can only say you’re not alone. A firm grip on your shoulder, a tissue pressed into your hand, a meal with friends who love you; each one offering a chance to heal.
Take them. Embrace them.
Above all, keep on living.